Fears of an environmental disaster are growing in Kenya because President Daniel arap Moi's government is pushing ahead with plans to clear vast areas of forest before elections later this year.
The government says it needs 167,000 acres to settle squatters. But opponents say the scheme is merely a ploy to buy political favours.
They warn that the notoriously corrupt regime will stop at nothing to win the poll, even if it means damaging the tea and tourism industries and threatening millions of ordinary Kenyans with drought. "They will go to any length to hold on to power. There is no other explanation," said Professor Wangarai Maathai, a leading environmentalist.
On the edge of the Mau Forest – a key area already eroded by illegal logging – Francis Kimani, a farm labourer, shook his head as trucks laden with freshly cut trees trundled by. "This is what we call wanton destruction," he said. "If these people keep cutting, we feel our country is going to run dry."
Kenya has a critical shortage of tree cover. According to experts, at least 10 per cent of the land needs the coverto ensure a reliable water supply. While neighbouring Tanzania has 36 per cent, Kenya has 1.7 per cent.
A severe drought last year brought the country to its knees. Four million people became dependent on food aid as reservoirs emptied, causing severe water and electricity rationing. The vanishing forest cover was an important factor.
Michael Gachanja of the Kenya Forests Working Group said: "If this excision goes ahead, we can expect to see even worse situations in future years."
Kenya's problem is that it relies on a handful of "water towers" – areas of highland forest that sponge up rainfall in the wet season, then release it slowly in dry times. But the government wants to chop down 15 per cent of the largest "tower", the Mau Forest.
If past experience is anything to go by, critics say, the allocations of land will favour the country's élite. Two years ago one of President Moi's daughters was named as a beneficiary of a proposed excision on the edge of Nairobi's most exclusive neighbourhood. Last October Nicholas Biwott, a cabinet minister, acquired a 1,000-acre site inside Kaptaget forest. He said it was to build a memorial to his mother.
And there is a tribal dimension. Large parts of the Mau Forest have already been cleared since the Nineties, when the government settled more than 3,000 families from the Ogiek, a tribe in President Moi's ethnic grouping. The excisions are the work of the "cannibal élite" according to John Githongo of Transparency International, a group that monitors corruption and which rates Kenya as the world's fourth most corrupt country. "Land is the number one patronage resource left," he said.
Angry activists have vowed to block the 167,000-acre excision, which they say is senseless and immoral. A variety of court challenges has failed or been delayed. One case was thrown out on a technicality. A second was delayed for six months because, officials said, case papers were lost. The hearing is now due next week.
Most Kenyans are preoccupied by poverty not the environment, but they can see the link between the two. Daniel Rono said the water supply on his new farm in the Mau had become erratic.
"During the dry periods we have to go to the other side," he said, pointing to a distant, still-wooded area. "We wish they had left some trees. The forest attracts rain."
Big business is also worried. Tea farmers, who bring in precious foreign exchange, are concerned that fewer trees will mean less water, bigger temperature swings and ultimately withering tea plants.
"We've had two severe droughts over the last five years, and recently frost which we never saw before. We can only assume the depletion of natural resources is impacting on rainfall," said Hugo Douglas Dufresne of African Highland Produce, one of Kenya's largest tea growers.
Tourism could also be compromised. The web of rivers that springs from the Mau runs into Lake Nakuru, famous for its flamingos, and across the plains of the Masai Mara, Africa's most renowned game reserve. Animal populations in both areas would suffer from erratic river flows.Reuse content